European Partners Look to Pentagon Chief for Reassurance

Marine Corps General James Mattis, left, is sworn-in as Defense Secretary by Vice President Mike Pence on Jan.20.
Marine Corps General James Mattis, left, is sworn-in as Defense Secretary by Vice President Mike Pence on Jan.20.

Jittery European partners looking for reassurance from a member of U.S. President Donald Trump's new administration might have found it Friday in the form of Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Allies are deeply troubled after Trump's campaign rhetoric questioned long-established alliances, and they worry about a simmering scandal over possible ties between the White House and Moscow.

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Mattis, a former four-star Marine general whom Trump coaxed from retirement to run the Pentagon, has repeatedly taken views diverging broadly from those of his boss.

While campaigning, Trump called NATO "obsolete" and spoke disdainfully of the mutual defense alliance, suggesting America is getting ripped off by member nations not paying their way. Since his inauguration, he has taken a more traditional tack on the key issues.

The financing of the 28-country group is a longstanding gripe, but what has rattled NATO and Western partners the most is the possible connections between Trump and the Kremlin.

Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin on several occasions, suggested Russia and the United States are morally equivalent and has pushed for closer military cooperation between the two powers.

Mattis, who on Thursday said the Pentagon is not yet ready for new military ties to Russia, told world leaders at the Munich Security Conference that the United States remains committed to the current international security system.

"The transatlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence," Mattis said.

"I am confident that we will strengthen our partnerships, confronting those who choose to attack innocent people or our democratic processes and freedoms."

Mattis is one of several heavy hitters from the Trump administration in Europe this week.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the G20 summit in Bonn, where he said Washington would conditionally consider working with Moscow in some areas, but he called on Russia to honor the Minsk peace agreement aimed at ending hostilities in Ukraine.

Vice President Mike Pence is due to address the Munich conference Saturday and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is also attending.

'Massive uncertainty'

Ahead of Pence's visit, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen urged the United States not to take transatlantic ties for granted.

"Our American friends know well that your tone on Europe and NATO has a direct impact on the cohesion of our continent," she said.

Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany's former ambassador to Britain, said the global political situation was unprecedented in modern times and described a "massive uncertainty" gripping Europe.

"European leaders and European governments are extremely impatient to find out what will really drive US foreign policy in this new period," he said, underscoring that many in Europe are clamoring to find out about the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

The Baltic states are especially nervous, given their history under the Soviet Union and proximity to Russia.

"Russia is in our view the threat," Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told reporters at NATO headquarters.

"After the annexation of Crimea and (Russia's) continuous aggression in the east of Ukraine. (Their) increased capabilities near our borders -- it's really created the risk" of conflict, he added.

The White House is still reeling from the forced resignation Monday of Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn, after it was revealed that he held pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador about US sanctions policy.

Trump on Thursday denied he or his staff had any pre-election contacts with Moscow.

"I have nothing to do with Russia," Trump said. "The whole Russia thing is a ruse."

Copyright (2017) AFP. All rights reserved.

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